What is Identity Theft?
This occurs when someone takes a piece of your personal information without your knowledge, such as your bank and credit card account numbers, your Social Security number (SSN), and your name, address, and phone numbers, then uses it to commit fraud or theft. An-all-too common example is when an identity thief uses your personal information to open a credit card account in your name.
Can you prevent identity theft entirely? Probably not, especially if someone is determined to commit the crime. However, you can minimize your risk by managing your personal information wisely and cautiously, with an awareness of the issue. Guard against identity theft in these ways:
- Before you reveal any personally-identifying information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information. Can you choose to have it kept confidential?
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills do not arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
- Guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after it has been delivered. If you are planning to be away from home and cannot pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up.
- Put passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN, your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you will actually need.
- Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers, and even government agencies to get you to reveal your SSN, mother's maiden name, financial account numbers, and other identifying information. Legitimate organizations with which you do business have the information they need and will not ask for it.
- Keep items with personal information in a safe place. To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements you're discarding, expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail.
- Be cautious about where you leave personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having service work done in your home.
- Find out who has access to your personal information at work and verify that the records are kept in a secure location.
- Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible.
- Do not carry your SSN card; leave it in a secure place.
- Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies every year. Check to see whether any additional accounts were opened without your consent or whether unauthorized charges were billed to your accounts. To request free copies of your credit reports as established by federal law: go tohttps://www.annualcreditreport.com
A credit freeze/security freeze lets you stop the disclosure of your credit report by a credit bureau. Most but not all states offer credit freezes. Some credit agencies offer a credit freeze. As a result, neither you nor anyone else can open a new credit account in your name. A lender or merchant will normally not issue new credit if it cannot access your credit report or score. A credit freeze also prevents anyone from accessing you credit information, so if you actively seeking new employment, a loan, or insurance, you may want to wait until you have completed you search. You can unlock or "thaw" your security freeze temporarily, for a small fee, by using a PIN to unlock access to the credit file. This allows a rental agency or loan officer to check your credit. For more information: FTC Credit Freeze page.
How to freeze credit
Consumer’s Union has an excellent and frequently updated page on all current state freeze laws and requirements, with a link on how to opt-out for each state and sample letters: http://www.consumersunion.org/campaigns/learn_more/003484indiv.html